LOOKING UPON the unknown, they found reasons for its being so. On both sides of the river an increasingly barren and broken land closed in, topped with fantastic towers. On July 7 they were deep in an entrenched, meandering canyon, swinging in great bends and amphitheaters. By evening they had come again to bad water, the walls much broken by side canyons, sometimes so close together that holes had eroded out between them leaving natural bridges. On the high rims they could see pine forests, but down on the river there was little but baking broken rock1 It reminded them all of the arid plateau around Green River and Fort Bridger; they were agreeably surprised to be in tune with science when the Major found fossil fish teeth that told him these rocks were in fact the same lacustrine formations.
Wanting to know as much as he could about the unexplored land back from the river, Powell took Bradley and climbed up a steep, ledgy wall in blistering sun. Somewhere on the cliff he made the mistake of jumping from one foothold to another, grabbing a projection of rock with his one hand. Then he found himself “rimmed,” unable to go forward or back. Standing on tiptoe and clinging to the knob, he shouted to Bradley, above him, but Bradley could not reach him with his hand, and there was no halfway foothold to which he could descend. The cliff had neither brush nor pole; they had carried no rope with them.
Below his feet was a hundred-foot drop, a terrace, and then a longer drop. If he let himself go he might fall clear to the river’s edge. By now his legs were trembling, his strength beginning to waver. As a desperation measure Bradley sat down on his ledge and yanked off his long drawers, which he lowered to Powell. With nice timing, Powell let go the knob, and half falling away from the cliff, grabbed the dangling underwear.2 That was the first, but by no means the only time he had cause to thank his stars for Bradley’s presence on the party.
That day, and for several successive days, Powell scanned from the rims a country even more wild and desolate than the canyon through which the boats felt their careful way. A great plateau was cut completely in two by the river. From a tower which he climbed he looked across the high pine forest clothing the summits, and across dozens of canyons heading in mid-plateau and deepening toward their confluence with the Green or with the White and Uinta to the north. But he could see little that told him what lay to the south, only the widening gray and brown lips of canyons cutting down toward unknown junctions. He took barometric measurements of the depth of strata, height of walls, fall of river. He taught Jack Sumner to use a sextant. He came down from the cliffs, groping dangerously after dark, and stayed up nearly all night making observations, and with an hour or two of sleep pushed off to run a while and tie up for more climbing, more observations.
They met headwinds so hot and strong they could not run against them. Even in mid-river, soaking wet, they panted with the heat, and on shore the sand of their campsite blew over them so that they covered their heads with blankets and sweltered. And when the wind subsided enough so that they could run, they hit twenty miles of continuous cataracts that made them revise some of the superlatives they had applied to Lodore.3 Sometimes running, sometimes (to the men’s disgust) cautiously lining, they got through forty-five miles of what they named the Canyon of Desolation and thought the country ahead looked favorable for a break. Andy Hall, rising above sandstorms and headwinds and the grinding labor of the portages, lay on his back that night and sang to the glum Bradley in a voice like a crosscut saw:
When he put his arm around her
She bustified like a forty-pounder,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie land.
All the way down the river Bradley had been griping in his diary about the Major’s habit of ignoring the Sabbath. Now he had a chance to crow. On Sunday, July 11, Powell started the Emma Dean down a brisk rapid and saw too late that it was a dogleg with a sharp kick to the left and a heavy pile-up of water against the wall at the turn. Earlier, two of their oars had been broken; the boat had only two now, not enough to pull them out of danger. All they could do was to point her nose downstream, wave frantically to the following boats to pull ashore, and hang on. They shot past a rock and were caught in a reflex wave that rolled the boat like a spinning log. Powell was thrown a boat’s length away, Sumner and Dunn managed to cling to the gunwales. In a pneumatic life preserver,4 and in water so swift, Powell could not sink. He struck out one-armed for the boat, wallowing swamped through the tail waves. The three of them, swimming and pulling at the waterlogged boat, managed to get her against a pile of driftwood before she could be swept over a second rapid below. But to Bradley’s satisfaction they had lost two rifles, some blankets, a barometer, and both remaining oars, and the Major had had his comeuppance for laboring on Sunday. That day they made a half mile, most of it swimming, and spent the remaining hours of daylight whipsawing oars out of a driftwood log.
Next day Bradley got his own comeuppance for gloating. Coming to a long, curving fall between broken rocks and an overhanging cliff, the Major looked the rapid over and concluded to run it, keeping as close to the rocks on the left as possible to avoid the great waves and the overhang along the cliff. The Emma Dean made it, half full of water, but as Bradley’s boat swept down out of the tongue a wave broke over his stern and knocked him overboard. His foot caught under the thwart, and head down, now contorting himself upward enough to get a hand on the gunwale, now dragging clear under, he rushed with the swamped boat through a series of battering waves before Walter Powell, pulling like a madman away from the threatening cliff, made it past the danger and could reach his strangling companion a hand.
The river played no favorites, and it showed no sign of conforming to their united wish for a letup. Beyond the Canyon of Desolation they ran directly into another, which they called Coal Canyon from the seams of lignite in the walls. It is now called Gray Canyon. And Gray Canyon was more of the same. In one bad rapid the river filled the channel from cliff to cliff, leaving not even the bare toehold of a portage. They had to let one boat down the full length of its line, then push off the second attached to it, and the third attached to the second, until all three were stretched out straining in the rapid, when the third was pulled in, then the second loosed and snubbed in, then the first. Then Bill Dunn, left on a rock in midstream, had to swim for it and be yanked in by those on shore.
It was bone-wrenching labor. Below that difficult lining job lay a portage, and below that a camp on a sandbeach in a hurricane of wind that blew all night and filled blankets, kettles, food, hair, eyes, ears, mouths, with sand. Desolation and Coal Canyons had been pretty continuous strain. Tempers were short, the rapids apparently endless. And then in a blink the unpredictable river gave them precisely what they craved: swift water, exhilarating little riffles and rapids that sped them along without labor and with a great lift of the spirit. They ran nineteen rapids in eighteen miles without the necessity of getting out of the boats, and at the end of Coal Canyon they burst out into open country again, a shimmering, blistered desert broken by circumeroded buttes of buff and gray and brown and slaty blue. Behind them, stretching in a long line east and west, were the Roan and Book Cliffs, cut to their base by the river’s gorge, and meandering away in long wavy lines distorted by heat haze and the smoke of forest fires. To the northeast they saw snow mountains, the Uncompahgre Range in western Colorado. Across the valley the buttes lifted on the heat waves and hung dreamlike above the earth.
The river was deep, broad, quiet. Two hours below the mouth of Coal Canyon they found an Indian crossing where crude rafts were moored against the bank, and knew it for another of the very few practicable crossings in the canyon wilderness. At this point, now the site of Greenriver, Utah, where both Highway 50 and the Denver and Rio Grande cross, the old Spanish Trail, route of mule drivers between Taos and California, route of traveling mountain men and supply trains, found a way across the canyons. To this same point Captain Gunnison, surveying for the Pacific Railroad in 1853, had been compelled like water in a funnel.5 The Powell party knew that Gunnison and seven of his men had been massacred by the Pahvant Indians a little farther west. When they landed and found evidence that Indians had recently crossed, they did not linger. Even such half-spoiled rations and depleted outfits as they had might be a temptation.
Beyond their brief meeting with the tracks of Indian and white they pushed on down the quiet river, one day, two days. At the mouth of the San Rafael, trickling from the west through a deep canyon, they found much Indian sign. Out from the river the buttes were evenly banded, brilliantly colored: pink, purple, brown, gray. As the river dug again into the rock and the walls rose higher around them they kept climbing out to look over the dunes of colored sand, maroon and orange and creamy white. The river began to pursue another entrenched meander, locked and baffled in the deep rock, swinging on itself in great bends under walls of homogeneous orange sandstone domed and hollowed into immense caves.
By now they had left behind them all familiarity; the country was such as none of them had ever seen. On the broken plains stretching away from rimrock there was no vegetation, only worn rock and sand and the bizarre forms of desert erosion; in the distance the Roan Cliffs were pale azure, the flat and tabular outlines of mesas and buttes were evenly bedded, colored like the rainbow. It looked like unknown country, and its heat fried their skins and beat on their heads and sucked the sweat from their pores as they rowed down the slow baffled current around bends that showed always more alcoves, more amphitheaters. The strangeness excited them to horseplay; they shot off their guns and loosed sharp yells to hear the confused echoes in the bowknot tangles of the river. They named it Labyrinth Canyon.
Like a teasing woman the river dawdled, meandered, surprised them with new forms, new colors, delayed and delayed and delayed the expected union with the Grand, now marked on the maps as the Colorado, at that point which on all the maps was frank guess work.6 They watched, and rowed, and waited, and expected the rapids and cataracts that should accompany the junction in such a wild and moonlike landscape, but the river swept them on serenely through July 14, 15, 16. Again and again they climbed out, but they looked in vain for any canyon that could mean the incoming Grand. They walked over pavements of jasper and heard their foreign voices in painted amphitheaters and tracked the sand in the bottoms of lateral gorges and saw the Orange Cliffs flame under the harsh sun, but still their objective escaped them, and still the Green went smooth and quiet around more bends.
Late in the afternoon of the 16th the river broke into hurrying waves, became again a swift steep pouring on which the boats rode like coasting sleds. Stillwater Canyon was behind them. In another hour they broke without warning on the junction, the Grand coming in “in a calm strong tide” from the left. No falls, no cataracts, no tumult to mark the union. Lesser canyons, wet-weather streams, almost always meant rapids, for they bore down flood-washed boulders and left them at their mouths. But the Grand came secretly out of the concealing rock, clearer and colder than the Green and at this time of year with a greater flow. Below the junction for a thousand yards, as far as they could see, the doubled river went unrippled, undangerous.
From Green River, Wyoming, they had come, by Powell’s computation, 538 miles. Caution had held their losses to one boat and its contents. Of the crew only one, the weakest, had given up. They were tightly knit, an expedition, camped on a spot probably no white man and perhaps no man of any kind had ever seen, unless the mysterious Denis Julien or other mountain men had found their way in. Macomb ten years before had predicted that the spot would remain forever unvisited, though a mendacious Colorado editor had once claimed that he had laid out a town at the junction. His town was in the land of Gilpin. Here was what Sumner described as “an apparently endless canyon in three directions - up the Grand, up the Green, and down the Colorado,” with “not enough timber within ten miles to last one family six months.”7
A quarter of a mile deep in the rock, the two rivers met to form a third with a formidable name. They camped at the fork of the waters and had some fun with the editor’s “Junction City” and settled down for several days of observations and measurements. Now they were correcting the maps.